May 13, 1916 Lafayette Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.

Sous-Lieutenant_Norman_Prince_summer1916
Norman Prince

Knowing that his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.  A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight in the war against the Axis Powers, joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

Lafayette_Escadrille_Pin
Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin, would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons, though he would not live to see the article.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

LtCol_William_Thaw_with_lion_cub_mascots_of_Lafayette_Escradrille_c1916
Lt. Col. William Thaw II with_lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.  Explanations that this was an “African dog” were less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

Captain_Georges_Thenault_and_Fram_1917
French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault & Fram, 1917

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo, but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit, and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

Kiffin Rockwell "In American Escadrille "movie" picture May 1916"
Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916. Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918, when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916, when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

Edmond_Charles_Clinton_Genet_circa_1915-1917
Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

Escadrille_Lafayette_in_July_1917
Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917. Standing (left to right) Soubiron, Doolittle, Campbell, Persons, Bridgman, Dugan, MacMonagle, Lowell, Willis, Jones, Peterson and de Maison-Rouge. Seated (left to right) Hill, Masson with “Soda,” Thaw, Thénault, Lufbery with “Whiskey,” Johnson, Bigelow and Rockwell. Georges Thenault’s dog “Fram” sits in the foreground.

April 29, 1915 The Wipers Times

My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” – Flame Thrower. “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.” “Instructive – Amusing”.

Second YpresAs chief of the Imperial German general staff from 1891-1905, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised the strategic roadmap by which Germany prosecuted the first world war. The “Schlieffen Plan” could be likened to a bar fight, where a fighter (Germany) had to take out one guy fast (France), before turning and facing his buddy (Imperial Russia). Of infinite importance to Schlieffen’s plan was the westward sweep through France, rolling the country into a ball on a timetable before his armies could turn east to face the “Russian Steamroller”. “When you march into France”, Schlieffen had said, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”Ypres

Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke once said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So it was in the tiny Belgian city where German plans were broken, on the road to Dunkirk. Native Dutch speakers called it Leper, today we know it as Ypres (Ee-press), since the battle maps of the time were drawn up in French. The Tommys of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), called the place “Wipers”.

What had hitherto been a war of movement ground to a halt in the apocalyptic fighting around Ypres, in October-November, 1914. 104,920 on all sides were killed, wounded or missing, around a city roughly the size of my little town of Falmouth, on Cape Cod.

The-Wipers-Times-300x400The second Battle of Ypres began with a new and terrifying weapon, on April 22, 1915. German troops placed 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90 pounds apiece, along a four mile front. Allied troops must have looked on in wonder, as that vast yellow-green carpet crept toward their lines. Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying the moist tissues of the lungs and eyes. Heavier than air, the stuff crept along the ground and poured into the trenches, forcing troops out into heavy German fire. 6,000 casualties were sustained in the gas attack alone, opening a four mile gap in the allied line. Thousands retched and coughed out their last breath, as others tossed their equipment and ran in terror.

After the war, German losses were estimated at 34,933 between April 21 and May 30, BEF casualties numbered 59,275. The French recorded about 18,000 on April 22 alone, with another 3,973 by the 29th of April. All told, 2nd Ypres cost allied forces 87,223 killed, wounded or missing.

The third Battle of Ypres would begin in July of 1917, lasting almost until the end of the war. 3rd Ypres would result in 570,000 losses on all sides, but in early 1916, that was all part of some unknown and terrible future.Offensive as I might be

It’s hard to imagine anything remotely humorous coming out of the horrors of Ypres, but such a thing became possible in the early months of 1916.

The “Sherwood Foresters” were line infantry Regiments of the British Army, stationed at the front lines of the Ypres salient. Coming across a printing press, a sergeant who had been a printer in peacetime got the thing going. They began to print a trench magazine, the first published on February 12. The paper included poems and reflections, “adverts” and plenty of dark humor.  Written for fellow soldiers, not civilians, some in-jokes are so obscure that their meaning is lost to the modern reader. Others are clearly understandable, even 101 years into their future.

OptimismRichly typeset advertisements for “Music Hall Extravaganzas” include “Tickling Fritz” by the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) Film Co. of the United Kingdom and Canada, advising the enthusiast to “Book Early”. There were Real Estate ads for property in no-man’s land. “BUILD THAT HOUSE ON HILL 60. BRIGHT-BREEZY-&-INVIGORATING. COMMANDS AN EXCELLENT VIEW OF HISTORIC TOWN OF YPRES”. Another one read “FOR SALE, THE SALIENT ESTATE – COMPLETE IN EVERY DETAIL! UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES READY FOR HABITATION. Splendid Motoring Estate! Shooting Perfect !! Fishing Good!!!”

There were news features, this one of a bungled trench raid: “”…They climbed into the trench and surprised the sentry, but unfortunately the revolver which was held to his head missed fire. Attempts were made to throttle him quietly, but he succeeded in raising the alarm, and had to be killed.” editor’s note, “This we consider real bad luck for the sentry after the previous heroic efforts to keep him alive””.Flammenwerfer

There were weather reports, laying odds on the forecast. “5 to 1 Mist, 11 to 2 East Wind or Frost, 8 to 1 Chlorine”. My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” – Flame Thrower. “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

It turns out that units of all sizes, from individual companies to army corps, lightened their load with some kind of unit journal in WWI.

The Wipers Times ran through the end of the war, with the exception of the “Operation Michael” period, the last gasp German Western Front offensive of 1918. The final edition, titled “The Better Times”, was published in December 1918, just short of two months after the armistice.   The banner read “Xmas, Peace and Final Number.”

Better Times

 

April 4, 1926  America’s 1st War Dog

America’s first war dog, Stubby, got there by accident, and served 18 months ‘over there’

sgt_stubby_7By the last year of WW1, the French, British and Belgians had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

America’s first war dog, “Stubby”, got there by accident, and served 18 months ‘over there’, participating in seventeen battles on the Western Front.

He looked like a terrier of some kind, similar to a pit bull.  Nobody knows anything more about him.  He showed up as a stray at Yale Field in New Haven, Connecticut, while a group of soldiers were training. The dog hung around as the men drilled and one soldier, Corporal Robert Conroy, started taking care of him. Conroy hid Stubby on board the troop ship when the outfit shipped out in 1917.sgt_stubby_6

Stubby saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, located and comforted the wounded, and even once caught a German spy by the seat of his pants. The Hun, who’d been prowling behind allied lines at the time, was mapping trenches for artillery bombardment.   He was found spinning in circles with a large, muscular terrier affixed to his behind.  The Bosch was easily disarmed, but it took a considerable amount of coaxing before Stubby could be persuaded to let go of that German’s rear end.

Black Jack Pershing, StubbyStubby saw his first action at Chemin des Dames. Since the boom of artillery fire didn’t faze him, he learned to follow the men’s example of ducking when the big ones came close. It became a great game to see who could hit the dugout, first.  After a few days, the guys were watching him for a signal. Stubby was always the first to hear incoming fire.  We can only guess how many lives were spared by his early warning.

After the Armistice, Stubby returned home as a nationally acclaimed hero, and was eventually received by presidents Harding and Coolidge. Even General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the AEF during the war, presented Stubby with a gold medal made by the Humane Society, declaring him to be a “hero of the highest caliber.”Stubby on parade

Stubby toured the country by invitation and probably led more parades than any dog in American history:  he was promoted to honorary Sergeant by the Legion, becoming the highest ranking dog to ever serve in the Army.

Old age finally caught up with the small warrior on April 4th, 1926, as he took ill and died in his master’s arms.

Sergeant Stubby and a few of his contemporaries were instrumental in inspiring the creation of the US K-9 Corps, just in time for World War ll.

March 28, 1915 Thrasher Incident

That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba

102 years ago, the Great War was in its 8th month.  The war of mobility of the early months was long gone, replaced by the lines of trench works which would characterize the rest of the war. Off the battlefield, the German and British governments each sought to choke the life out of the other’s economy. Great Britain held the upper hand, with the superior deep-water surface fleet.  To the Kaiser’s way of thinking, parity would come in the form of a submarine.

Picture_of_Leon_Chester_Thrasher_who_died_on_the_RMS_Falaba
Leon Chester Thrasher 1st American killed in WW!

Leon Chester Thrasher was an American mining engineer. That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba.

The German submarine U-28 stopped Falaba on this day in 1915, sinking the ship to the bottom with a single torpedo and killing 104, including Leon Thrasher.  The first American killed in the “War to End all Wars”.

German policy varied over the course of the war, from unrestrained submarine warfare, to strict adherence with international law. U-28 Commander Freiherr Georg-Günther von Forstner claimed to have given Falaba 23 minutes to evacuate, cutting that short and firing his torpedo only in response to Falaba’s distress rockets and wireless messages for help. British authorities claim to have been given only 7 minutes’ warning.

The death of the first American in the European war set off a diplomatic row which threatened for a time to bring the Americans into the war. American newspapers called it the “Thrasher Incident”, denouncing the sinking as a “massacre”.   An act of “piracy”.falaba

The Germans claimed that subsequent explosions proved Falaba to be carrying contraband ammunition, intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.  Eyewitness accounts failed to settle the matter, some even tended to support the German view.

President Woodrow Wilson stayed his hand, winning re-election the following year with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War”.

What remained of Leon Thrasher washed ashore on the coast of Ireland on July 11, 1915, after 106 days in the water.  Authorities mistakenly believed him to be a victim of the RMS Lusitania sinking, designating him Body No. 248.

The U-boat U-20 had torpedoed the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland 40 days earlier, killing 1,198, 124 of whom were Americans. The US came close to the brink of war that time too, but the last and final straw wouldn’t come for another two years.  In the form of a German telegram, to the government of Mexico.

March 20 1870 Der Löwe von Afrika

When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, von Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k himself.” Describing the interview afterward, his nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by the time of WWI.

lettowvorbeckportraitStationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force which never exceeded 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), the “Lion of Africa” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the much better known Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with battle casualties.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, in order to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

At one point in the battle of Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about one British radioman who held to his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.
Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari im Kampf

Of all German commanders in WWI, “der Löwe von Afrika” – the Lion of Africa alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k himself.” Describing the interview afterward, his nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

After such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His sons both killed serving in the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

ReminiscencesIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

March 16, 1914 The Caillaux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We heard a lot this past election year, about “Left” and “Right”, “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By this time, it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

200 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’ 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time. Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.  Though no one realized it at the time, Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs.affairecaillaux_thumb Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines that would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which they sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75 year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation that German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July of 1914, would not live to see November 11, 1918.

March 11, 1918 Pandemic

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one.

In the world of virology, “Antigenic Drift” describes changes which happen slowly, the random mutation of virus DNA which takes place over months, or years. It’s why we get a new flu vaccine every year, even though there’s already some level of “herd immunity”.

“Antigenic Shift” occurs when two or more DNA strands combine, instantaneously forming a new virus sub-type. Like the dealer at some giant, cosmic poker table, this process may deal us a pair of twos. Occasionally, fate deals us aces & eights. The death hand.flu6

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, US Armed Forces were small compared with the mobilized forces of European powers. The Selective Service Act, enacted May 18, 1917, authorized the federal government to raise an army for the United States’ entry into WWI. Two months after the American declaration of war against Imperial Germany, a mere 14,000 American soldiers had arrived “over there”. Eleven months later, that number stood at well over a million.

General “Black Jack” Pershing insisted that his forces be well trained before deployment. New recruits poured into training camps by the tens of thousands, while somewhere, some microscopic, chance recombination of surface proteins created a new virus, novel to almost every immune system in the world.

Flu pandemicOn the morning of March 11, 1918, most of the recruits at Fort Riley, Kansas, were turning out for breakfast. Private Albert Gitchell reported to the hospital, complaining of cold-like symptoms of sore throat, fever and headache. By noon, more than 100 more had reported sick with similar symptoms.

Ordinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15-34 year olds 20 times higher in 1918, than in previous years. Perversely, it was their young and healthy immune systems that were most likely to kill them.

Physicians described the most viscous pneumonia they had ever seen, death often comingspanish_flu_death_chart-790-x-602.jpg_w=790&h=602 within hours of the first symptoms. There’s a story about four young, healthy women playing bridge well into the night. By morning, three were dead of influenza.

Over the next two years, this strain of flu infected one in every four people in the United States, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans. Eight million died in Spain alone, following an initial outbreak in May. Forever after, the pandemic would be known as the Spanish Flu.

In 1918, children skipped rope to a rhyme:

“I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
and in-flu-enza”.

In the trenches, the flu cut down combatants on every side. “Operation Michael”, the final, no holds barred German offensive that would determine the outcome of the war, launched from the Hindenburg line in March. Crown Prince Rupprecht wrote in August that “poor provisions, heavy losses, and the deepening influenza have deeply depressed the spirits of men in the 3rd Infantry Division”.

Some sources indicate that as many as half of the Americans killed in WWI, died of the flu.
The parades and parties following the cease fire in November threw gasoline on the fire. The end of war was a complete disaster from a public health standpoint. Millions more contracted the flu and thousands more died. President Wilson himself fell ill, while participating in 1919 treaty negotiations in Versailles.

1918-spanishfluAround the planet, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people. A third of the population of the entire world, at that time. Estimates run as high 50 to 100 million killed. For purposes of comparison, the “Black Death” of 1347-51 killed 20 million Europeans.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole, like they never happened. Today, the Spanish flu is all but overshadowed by the Great War, even though in the end, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 proved a far deadlier adversary, than the war itself.